The ‘Pakistani’ psyche

NATIONAL or group psyche represents the idea that different nations or groups possess distinctive psychological characteristics.

The idea’s hard cultural version controversially argues that group cultures inculcate timeless psyches among members which then determine their political and economic fate. This version reflects popular biases (eg, Jews are greedy, Hindus are stingy and Muslims are violent) rather than scientific analysis.

It ignores the political factors which produce these psyches and shape group fates. Thus, American conservatives attribute black poverty to lower IQ, a dysfunctional culture and laziness while minimising the impact of slavery, segregation and discrimination. A softer, political version instead argues that negative psyches temporarily emerge in societies due to self-serving elite manipulation.

While not universal within the group, they disproportionately influence group decision-making. They make it easier for elites to confuse people, ignore broader interests and externalise their own failures. Thus, the idea of German racial superiority was deliberately spread among Germans by the Nazis but disappeared soon after their defeat.

Certain negative psyches have emerged in Pakistan since the 1970s as Pakistani elites have attempted to mobilise people behind their security agenda. Foremost among them is conspiratorial paranoia in which people or groups exaggeratedly consider themselves important and accuse others of plotting against them. Some conservatives attribute a manifest destiny to Pakistan as an Islamic fort which will catalyse a global caliphate. Westerners supposedly ‘recognise’ this destiny and are therefore continuously destabilising Pakistan. ‘External forces’ and ‘hidden hands’, usually euphemisms for the CIA, are blamed for every ill.

Conspiratorial paranoia thrives on the psyche of arm-chair reality invention. Rational minds reach firm conclusions based on credible physical evidence. Where evidence is missing, they at most form tentative hypotheses. Conservatives are often unbound by such ‘timid’ tentativeness. They prefer strong opinions based on ‘direct’ modes of discovering reality where evidence becomes superfluous.

Discovering the truth directly was a respected tradition among ancient mystics who sat under trees for years uncomfortably until it descended upon them. To this fabled art of ancient mystics, Pakistan’s modern-day ideologues have introduced two important innovations.

Firstly, sitting under trees is not necessary; sitting on comfortable couches works equally well in their opinion. Secondly, perhaps given modern-day time pressures, they view years of meditation as unnecessary. A few moments of contemplation on a couch, especially after a heavy curry meal, the ‘truths’ about American conspiracies start descending upon them and are instantly communicated widely through modern-day Western technologies.

Many leftists share right-wing critiques about US imperialism. However, they criticise specific American atrocities when there is clear evidence, eg, in Iraq and Latin America and with drone attacks. They politely refuse the right-wing invitation for a ride through fantasy land where unsubstantiated accusations are hurled endlessly.

Conservatives often equate evidence with conjecture. The demand for evidence shocks conservatives, so infatuated are they with their rhetoric. In response, they either call the person unreasonable or academic for demanding evidence; keep providing more conjectures to support earlier conjectures; or present spurious, cooked-up evidence.

The power of reality invention, in turn, depends on uncritical thinking among listeners. Critical thinking is discouraged officially in Pakistan. Thus, many Pakistanis accept assertions about all Jews being absent from the World Trade Centre on 9/11 and Osama not being in Abbottabad without demanding evidence. Many even believe the simultaneous assertion that Malala was not attacked at all and that she was attacked by the CIA without noticing the contradiction.

Another common theme in conservative discourse is honour mania. Thus, one periodically sees conservatives roaring indignantly that someone has maligned Pakistan’s honour. They resemble the easy-going village simpleton portrayed often in traditional Pakistani movies who after suffering repeated provocations by the landlord confronts him roaring that his provocations have finally awoken his honour — a role played to perfection by the late Lala Sudhir. Honour played a major role in traditional societies among conservatives where it had clear economic and political utility.

Modern-day conservatives prefer the concept of national interests over national honour. Liberals prioritise international law over both which fairly balances competing national interests. Pakistan’s conservatives criticise drone attacks for violating national honour. Liberals criticise them for violating international law. It is easier to generate international support against violations of international law rather than of honour.

Finally, one comes across perverse thinking belittling the rule of law but romanticising that of the jungle, eg people vilifying Malala Yousafzai but glorifying Mumtaz Qadri.

How widespread is such thinking in Pakistan? Certainly, I see it more frequently in mass and social media rather than actual interactions with people during my frequent visits. Even in remote Fata villages, I saw no romanticisation of the Taliban, a matter-of-fact focus on practical issues and a calm denunciation of both US and Taliban policies — a balance often missing among even ‘educated’ people.

Not only in Pakistan but also in countries like America and Israel one sees unproductive psyches dominant. Generally, such psyches are adopted by a small, vocal minority, while the majority is either confused or holds them lukewarmly or is too timid to challenge such ideologues openly due to their elevated military, political, economic or religious status.

Personally, I find that true in Pakistan too. Such passing psyches generally lose their dominance due to external intervention, internal collapse, changes in elite interests and strategies or the constant struggles of civil society. The growing capacities of Pakistan’s civil society and the shallowness of such beliefs among the majority make it increasingly likely that civil society will help overcome such dysfunctional psyches in Pakistan too.